Culture

Australia’s Treatment Of Asylum Seekers Is So Bad It Could Be Ripped From Dystopian Fiction

President Snow and Peter Dutton. Spot the difference.

If the recent deluge of dystopian books, films and TV shows is anything to go by, it appears our cultural preoccupation with the end of the world is nowhere near slowing down. The Hunger Games went from selling millions of books to theatre tickets; The Walking Dead’s consistently stellar ratings are showing no signs of fatigue; even books for adults like Emily St John Mandel’s best-selling Station Eleven are being anointed with stamps of approval from lofty awards bodies.

The general feeling regarding dystopia’s unflagging popularity is that these dark stories reflect our dark times. The literary canon is well-populated with allegorical hellscapes meant to warn readers about future moral threats. In classics like George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Phillip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? common threads of fear arise: the rise of technological dependence, the dangers of paranoid totalitarianism, the loss or suppression of individuality.

More contemporary dystopian texts have reflected modern fears. There’s Claire Vaye Watkins’ ecological wasteland in Gold Fame Citrus, the economic apocalypse in Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, and  a world ravaged by a ‘Mega Flu’ in Mandel’s Station Eleven.

In Australia right now, our world is very dark. I am, of course, referring to the ongoing debate around Australia’s asylum seeker policy: a draconian, human-rights-violating living nightmare that we Australians perpetrate against some of the most vulnerable humans on this planet, punishing their desire to escape pain and terror with imprisonment and obscurity that is tantamount to torture.

Even the most skilled bad-news-avoiders can’t possibly ignore the stories trickling out of Nauru – of unimaginable horror, of a “hell” at “the end of the world” complete with poor living conditions, water shortages, limited access to sanitary products for female refugees, numerous allegations of sexual assault, rape and other abuses perpetrated against the women, children and men on Nauru and Manus Island by fellow internees and centre staff.

This is disturbing — not just because the real-time dystopia of our refugee crisis would fit comfortably in any blockbuster saga, but also because, in that timeless fable of ethical terror, we Australians wouldn’t be the heroes – we would be the villains.

Life Imitates Art: The Cartoonish Cruelty Of Our Detention Policy

To any avid readers or watchers of dystopian stories, the history of Australia’s “border protection” policies will seem queasily familiar. It’s a classic battle between the haves and the have-nots, led by a secretive government body. Details of Australia’s offshore (and onshore) detention arrangements are closely guarded. Australian journalists are all but forbidden from gaining access to detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island, and staff and volunteers on the islands are legally bound to keep secret what they witness there, under pain of imprisonment.

In the last two weeks, the hashtag #LetThemStay has been a rallying cry for Australians concerned with the fate of 37 babies — all born in Australia — who, under a new High Court ruling, could be returned to detention on Nauru at any moment.

The slogan has been painted on signs, promoted on social media, incorporated in the desperate pleas of many Australians, from treasured artists to the Premier of Victoria, all calling on the federal government to have compassion for these refugees. In a now-infamous photo circulated online, a protestor’s sign reads: “I can’t believe we even need to protest the torture of kids.”

Endangering children as an act of deterrence is a move the Australian Government shares with the affluent overlords of Panem’s Capitol in The Hunger Games. In Collins’ series, the Games are a collective punishment designed to control and torment the dispossessed districts, and to deter them from rebelling; they work by ripping children away from their parents and forcing them into a battle for survival.

Similarly, in Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, an uprising from the dispossessed passengers at the tail-end of the train begins in part because the children of the tail-end passengers are being kidnapped and sent to the front of the train as labourers for the train’s moneyed front passengers. And in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, perhaps the most desperate moment of the book involves the image of a baby roasting on a spit over a fire, and of cannibals gathering to eat it.

In these texts, the torture of children, in whatever form, is seen as the apex of evil; what “good guys”, in their right minds, would sacrifice children for their own enduring comfort?

Be A Shoe: The Lie Of Asylum Seeker Rhetoric

These fictional dystopian nightmares are usually orchestrated by some totalitarian government body or shady scientific organisation: shadowy officials who are ruthless in their protection of their secrets, rule their underlings with regimental talent, and are generally tasked with the onerous job of quelling the masses. In Snowpiercer, Tilda Swinton, who plays the snivelling government minister Mason, delivers a spectacularly weird speech on the hierarchy of the train while a rebellious tail-end passenger is punished for questioning her authority.

Grand speeches calling for “order” and pledging “protection” are common for villainous leaders in dystopian stories — and also, seemingly, for defenders of the current detention regime in Australia.

When Immigration Minister Peter Dutton appeared on the ABC’s 7.30 last week, he was allowed a considerable platform to make one such a speech. Avoiding a great deal of the questions he was asked, Dutton peddled the Border Protection party line, one we’ve heard so often we know it by heart: “Stop the boats”.

“Well I don’t want a recommencement and all of the intelligence that I have available to me says that people smugglers are desperate to get back into business,” Dutton said. “They want to trade in this human misery. And I don’t want to see people, including women and children, drown at sea as we saw when Labor lost control of our borders.”

For good measure, Dutton mentioned “deaths at sea” and “stop the boats” a half dozen more times in his short interview. Although he was questioned on a variety of issues relating to asylum seeker policy, it seemed to him there was only one good answer.

Dutton’s words echo those of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who, when he was questioned on the Human Rights Commission’s report into the detention of children, bleated: “The most compassionate thing you can do is stop the boats. We have stopped the boats.”

Rhetoric, the life raft of any politician under fire, protects Dutton, Abbott and their ilk from giving direct answers to direct questions. What they’re hiding are the real conditions on Nauru — conditions that, according to a recently-published Essential Report measuring the public’s perception of our offshore detention program, Australians have little knowledge of.

Likewise, propaganda becomes an important tool for quelling disquiet. In The Hunger Games, when rumblings of an uprising led by Katniss reach the Capitol, President Snow releases insidious videos of a captured rebel denouncing Katniss and her rebellion. In Australia, when the rhetoric against asylum seekers became focused on “stopping the boats”, the federal government released their own expensive advertisements. “NO WAY,” they claimed. “They will not call Australia home.”

And those reportedly “cruel” and “inhumane” conditions on Nauru? They may as well be ripped straight from any dystopian landscape.

In John Marsden’s Tomorrow series, in which Australia is invaded by an unidentified Asia-Pacific nation, Ellie Linton and her friends tremulously describe the feeling of seeing their loved ones locked behind a fence in their local fairground – packed in tight, badgered by guards.

In Charlotte Wood’s Stella Prize-nominated The Natural Way of Things, in which a group of women are kidnapped, shorn and imprisoned in a kind of work camp, there are endless descriptions of the petty hell in which the novel’s women are interred. They eat from filthy bowls and their water is rationed. They wear soiled clothes they are unable to wash. They have limited access appropriate medical care, and their guards harass and abuse them.

These conditions are meant to shock and appal readers; likewise, the conditions on Nauru are meant to scare off desperate asylum seekers. (Although owing to the government’s secrecy there is little concrete evidence that this is an entirely effective strategy.)

With all the misery inherent to dystopian texts, there is always one river of hope, the “good guys” who stand up against censorship, injustice and cruelty: Katniss and her band of rebels in The Hunger Games; Curtis and his tail-end militia in Snowpiercer; fierce; determined prisoners in The Natural Way of Things.

In Australia, these heroes are the doctors and caregivers risking prosecution to expose details of internment on Nauru, or to protect their patients from certain harm in detention; they are the lawyers and advocates working at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. The “good guys” are the children on Nauru, who are brave enough to reach out to the Australian public via their harrowing Facebook page, Free the Children NAURU.

If they’re the heroes, what does that make the rest of us?

The fiercest trends in popular culture always reflect something interesting about the society that consumes them. The recent rise of female sexual trauma storylines in TV shows like Jessica Jones, for example, may be at least in part due to the developing discourse around our global rape epidemic. World-ending threats like climate change and nuclear proliferation may explain why we’re so obsessed with dystopia’s fictional accounts of the world post-apocalypse.

But as Australians, we should be looking deeper. These stories detail horrendous injustices that misguided masses perpetrate against vulnerable people; they feature paternalistic, censoring governments parroting claims of “protection” and “for your own good”; they imagine the vulnerable in foul conditions, endangered, oppressed and stripped of their dignity.

In Shirley Jackson’s infamous 1948 New Yorker story ‘The Lottery’, Jackson isolated a piercing moral terror in post-WWII society: “the capacity for ordinary citizens to do evil”; something which allowed people to turn away from Nazi atrocities, or offer up their friends and neighbours to service the growing Red Scare. The story hit a nerve with readers who were understandably afraid of “this ugly glimpse of their own faces in the mirror”.

Perhaps we should all take a leaf out of the dystopian genre’s book, and stand up against these obvious injustices perpetrated in our names.

Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance writer, editor and theatre-maker, and a card-carrying feminist. She also tweets from @mdixonsmith.